Bringing the Right Lesson from Chelsea, MA, to Central Falls

Sunday’s Providence Journal placed an interesting front-page juxtaposition under the joint headline “After bankruptcy, who governs?”  The article having to do with Central Falls — indeed, the headline question, itself — suggests that the critical lesson from the article about Chelsea, MA, is in danger of being missed.  Specifically, the important question isn’t who governs, but how the city governs itself, including the participation of its people in the formation and operation of government.

In the first article linked above, written by Zachary Malinowski, the emphasis is strongly on the possibility of replacing the elected office of mayor with the appointed office of city manager.  Central Falls receiver Robert Flanders “insists that the mayoral form of government invites patronage and cronyism.”  State Director of Revenue Rosemary Booth Gallogly suggests that “a city manager might provide ‘more continuity in the management of the city.'”  And Wyatt Detention Facility board member Albert Romanowicz thinks a city manager “gets away from politics… putting a professional in there.”

Contrary examples aren’t difficult to discover.  North Providence illustrated recently that councils are not immune to corruption.  Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau was on his fourth term when the receiver stepped in.  And one needn’t name names to prove that hired managers are just as apt to be incompetent as elected officials (but we can look to Woonsocket’s history of school superintendents for evidence).  Furthermore, appointed managers are one step less accountable to the population that ought to be keeping an eye on them.  URI political science professor Shanna Pearson is correct to note that mayors “provide direct accountability to voters” (in the reporter’s paraphrase).  At this degree of specificity, the form of government is arguably less important than the circumstances surrounding it, both the municipality’s history and its trajectory into the future.

The key detail in the Chelsea story isn’t that revamping the city government after a receivership included a switch to city manager, it’s the process followed to arrive at that conclusion.  According to <i>Providence Journal</i> staff writer John Hill, Chelsea’s receivership came after “decades of corruption and mismanagement.”  After about a year of bringing its $9.5 million deficit (on a $40 million budget) under control, the leaders whom the state appointed and hired proceeded as follows:

“We would use the need for a city charter to teach self-government,” said Susan L. Podziba, of Susan L. Podziba Associates, the mediation consultant [Receiver Lewis] Spence hired to coordinate the process. …

She started by interviewing Spence and his staff. That produced a list of about 40 people, from sitting city aldermen to the man who dressed as Santa Claus and waved to downtown motorists each December. She interviewed them individually, specifically asking whom they thought she should call. Pretty soon, she said, she started hearing the same names.

She recruited local “facilitators” to fan out across the city to look for organizations that had active memberships and leaders who got things done.

Thereafter, an extensive series of town meetings and multiple layers of culled lists drawn from various sources ultimately produced an 18-person Charter Preparation Team, followed by more town meetings and a final democratic vote on the document.  Back in Central Falls, by contrast, Flanders appears to be speaking in terms of people whom he’ll appoint, perhaps selecting from petitions with voters’ signatures.  The acute problem is easy to see:  Those most likely to get enough signatures will be those most likely to have been involved in government in the past.  The more fundamental problem is the arms length at which handling everything by petition and appointment puts the receiver from the people.

Political observers can debate whether the RI receivership gives him too much power, and whether Flanders was right to sing for the in-crowd rather than attending a local meeting on the same night.  Such debates would recede in significance, though, if he were spending some time each day going door to door and attending social gatherings, church events, and school activities — not for the reason that politicians do such things (to increase their own profile), but in order to get a sense of what sort of government might command residents’ attention and to let them know that the corruption and mismanagement to which they’ve become accustomed does not have to be the norm.